Monday, January 30, 2006

From: The Hindu, The state of the union

While sexual minorities are gaining acceptance all around the world, civil and marital rights are a faraway dream here, finds out RAKESH MEHAR

Last month, Amrut watched and cheered as Elton John and his long-time partner David Furnish celebrated their civil partnership, becoming the most famous benefactors of the United Kingdom's Civil Partnership Act that legalises same-sex unions. Later, he watched as Brokeback Mountain, a gay Western directed by Ang Lee, overcame controversies to win critical acclaim at the Golden Globe Awards. Just last week, he read on the Internet that DePaul University in Chicago, the largest Catholic University in the U.S., has launched a "Queer Studies" programme, despite Vatican's rabid anti-homosexuality stance. Sadly, he says, for him and thousands others of the sexual minorities in India, these events overseas only reflect the lack of change here.

Distant milestone

In India, say Amrut and others, civil and marital rights are a faraway dream that might not be realised for a decade or more. A far greater challenge that still blocks this path is Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises all forms of sexual orientation that don't conform to the normative heterosexist ideal. The presence of Section 377 creates a framework of harassment, in which sexual minorities live in a state of fear. There are a number of documented cases of violence and harassment on the basis of this law, the most recent being the entrapment and arrest of four men in Lucknow, on the basis of profiles of themselves they had posted on a website. However, for every case that is documented, scores of others go unnoticed, particularly those involving working-class sexual minorities.

According to Elavarthi Manohar, who works with Sangama, a sexuality minorities' rights group, the challenges multiply for working-class minorities because they do not possess safe spaces that those of the middle or upper middle class have access to. Moreover, most activist groups in the country are largely representative of English-speaking gays and lesbians, and working-class minorities often do not have a voice or a platform for their grievances.

Seeking normalcy

One of the primary realisations that members of sexual minorities hope for is that their relationships and lifestyles are as "normal" and subject to many of the same challenges that heterosexual relationships are subjected to. And it is this mainstreaming of alternative sexual orientations that they believe will take place with the legalisation of same-sex unions. As Bala, a senior management consultant, puts it: "Most people think gay lifestyles are all about sex. What they need to see is that we have the same emotional needs as heterosexual individuals. If that happens, then there will probably be greater understanding and acceptance."

A more practical aspect of legalised same-sex unions is that legal issues such as inheritance are then treated on the same level as heterosexual marriages. At present, many everyday benefits that heterosexuals take for granted aren't available to those of the sexual minorities. As one gay man in a long-term relationship put it: "We always worry about what happens if one of us falls sick or dies, or if we ever want to adopt a child and so on. In a marriage, you take all these things for granted." Mahesh, who works for an IT company, explains that he faces many of the same problems because his organisation doesn't have policies relating to same-sex partnerships. The easiest example is in the case of travel allowances. "Whenever my married colleagues travel, there are allowances for their spouses and families. However, I don't get any such benefits because the company claims they can't legally give them to me. In effect, I'm subsidising other people's marriages. It makes me feel like a second class citizen."

However, in demanding marital rights, there is also a conscious understanding of the fact that marriage as an institution also has its problems. Manohar explains that marriage as a unit supports certain kinds of oppression. He says that there is a need, therefore for the sexual minorities to find other viable relationship models.

Although some semblance of a sexual minorities' rights movement has begun to appear in most metros, the issue still fails to get the kind of visibility that other human rights issues have managed. Arvind Narrain, a lawyer with the Alternative Law Forum and a well-known activist for sexual minorities' rights, explains that part of the problem is the lack of understanding of the politics of sexuality. "It is still very difficult to talk about sexuality, because it is treated as an area of shame and fear. That makes it hard for the issue to gain visibility." A part of the blame also lies with the rights groups and the community at large, says Manohar. "Wherever sexuality minorities have won their rights, it's because people came out on the streets and fought for it. Here, that kind of activism hasn't happened on a large scale yet. There have been sporadic protests around the country, but no sustained movements."

The situation has improved over the years, however. Manohar explains that in a previous instance when four men in Lucknow were arrested on the basis of their sexual orientation, protests around the country began only after a month, and the detainees were kept in prison for close to six weeks. In the more recent arrest, however, a full report was made about the issue in three days, and protests began immediately, resulting in bail soon.

What many activists want to establish is that in asking for these rights, the sexual minorities aren't demanding special privileges. "We don't want special rights. We just want the right to not be subjected to special discrimination," explains one activist.


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